How is it possible to develop effective public policy in times of political change?1 To answer this question, one must begin with what is meant by "in times of political change"? Apart from the obvious markers of minority government rule and a variant of asymmetric federalism, there is another dimension to probe: there is a noticeable change in what we would consider "givens" in public policy decisions. Questions such as: "Who knows best?" and "What makes a decision right or wrong?" rarely point to neat solutions.
If the conditions of public policy-making are less predictable and more complex today than in the past, then evaluation is more useful (and probably more difficult) than ever. This is partly because public expectation has been radicalized by a number of recent reports of government wrongdoing. It is also due to the reasonable expectation that government ought to function well even in difficult times.
An immediate quandary arises for decision makers who face added complexities, while having less room for error. To quote one senior minister: "We now demand of our elected officials conduct much more irreproachable than before." How to combine high-risk decisions with greater transparency and good value for Canadians is the ultimate evaluation challenge. In essence, the evaluation function is about governance because it refers to the values and practices that will guide public policy decision making in the twenty-first century.
Back to Methuselah
This challenge was by no means alien to Bernard Shaw, a man who may well have been writing for our times. In Back to Methuselah, Shaw takes the reader on a witty jaunt through evolutionary theory and responsible government, among many other things. In it, he refers to "the revival of religion on a scientific basis." Shaw is speaking in the context of a revolt against religion. He posits that the reason for this is that the institutions of religion have misused their myths - that is, freely substituted them for doctrine. He concludes that reasoned citizens are faced with few options other than to reject religious teaching because, taken literally, it snaps in the face of real-world dilemmas: "...the imposition of legends as literal truths at once makes them falsehoods."2
Shaw compares this to science. He observes that science, much like religion, is full of myths, stories and legends. But, unlike religion, science has never mistaken these for historical fact or material substantiation: "... [in science], you may take the law and leave the legends without suspicion of heresy."3 In contemporary terms, this "revolt" may be extrapolated to government, an institution whose legal and moral foundations are under considerable strain today.
In many ways, politics (and, by extension, public policy) is the religion of our times. Another way of stating this is to say that public policy is susceptible to the kind of distortion that any values-based doctrine, applied dogmatically, is susceptible to. As ethical and human rights questions become more consequential in public policy, value-based decisions are likely to be more pronounced.
1 This paper was prepared from a presentation at an Infonex Inc. conference, in November 2004. The conference headline was Developing Public Policy in Times of Political Change.
2 B. Shaw. 1921. Back to Methuselah, p. 56.
3 Ibid., p. 57.